NHTCU disappears into SOCA

New crime busting agency to be more effective...or not?

The Government yesterday launched the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), dubbed the British FBI, with the aim of tackling drug trafficking, organised immigration crime, money laundering, and identity fraud.

The new agency is drawing on officers from the former National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence Agency. Drug trafficking intelligence officers from HM Revenue and Customs and specialist organised immigration crime officers from the Immigration Service are also involved.

One function of SOCA is to replace the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU). The NHTCU, launched in April 2001, was the UK's first national law enforcement organisation dealing exclusively with computer crime, such as computer-related fraud, hacking, industrial espionage, viruses and denial of service, child porn, and software piracy.

According to home secretary Charles Clarke, the agency "will work across operational boundaries to tackle the problem, focusing its resources on where the harms are the greatest. Drug and people trafficking will be its top priorities along with fraud and identity theft."

Agents will "exploit hi-tech 21st century technology and uncover the new wave of crime bosses", he added. "They will draw on new powers of search, seizure and interrogation to provide a specialised and relentless attack on organised crime, alongside existing law enforcement agencies."

But Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW, said today: "It is surprising and a little disappointing that the NHTCU isn't even mentioned in the publicity material for SOCA. While SOCA's manifesto includes combating frauds that use the internet, we really can't say whether SOCA will be more effective than the NHTCU."

Robertson says it is too early to say if it will or will not bring more cyber criminals to justice. "But the biggest problem is likely to be resource: the remit of SOCA is wide and it will need to prioritise," he said. The SOCA Board has already suggested that only 10 per cent of SOCA's effort will be directed at fraud – which will include phishing and investment or advance fee frauds.

Another problem could be that, if the frauds are the work of an individual, not an organised crime syndicate, they may be beyond SOCA's reach. "Such crimes were of concern to the NHTCU, but if SOCA doesn't get involved, would they be left to local police, who won't be as well equipped to investigate and bring cyber criminals to justice?" asked Robertson. "We've sought clarification from the Home Office, but haven't had a response yet."

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